OBITUARY: Sonya Cohen Cramer, singer, graphic designer, art director

PHOTO: Sonya Cohen Cramer on her birthday, 2011.

OBITUARY • REID CRAMER

Sonya Cohen Cramer, 50, passed away on October 9, 2015 at her home in Takoma Park, Maryland. An acclaimed singer who uniquely carried on her family’s musical heritage, as well as a graphic designer, she brought the two together in her long-time collaboration with Smithsonian Folkways Records. Sonya’s dynamic artistic life encompassed music, singing, design, collage, bookmaking, poetry, and arts and crafts. She had talent, high standards, and creativity—and she was a mother extraordinaire.

Born in New York City in July 1965, Sonya Cohen grew up in Putnam Valley, New York in a family with deep musical and artistic roots. She was the daughter of John Cohen, of the folk revival music group, The New Lost City Ramblers, and Penelope Seeger, a potter whose elder siblings were folk musicians Mike, Peggy, and Pete Seeger. She was the granddaughter of seminal musicologist Charles Seeger and the avant-garde composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. When she was only a few days old, her parents took her to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where her Uncle Pete dedicated the evening’s performance to her, saying she represented the hope for the future. Later that same historic night, “Dylan went electric.”

Penny and John found an old farmhouse to fix up not far from Beacon, New York where Penny had lived with Pete and Toshi Seeger. The Cohens raised their children in a homesteading environment filled with music and projects of gardening, canning, baking, knitting, and sewing. After spending her high school years in London and at Oakwood, a Quaker boarding school in Poughkeepsie, New York, Sonya attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut where she graduated with Honors in Art and Architecture.

At Wesleyan, Sonya explored the connections between feminist theory and art through book arts, printmaking, and collage. She began to study and perform in a range of world music styles, along with her family tradition of folk Americana. She sang South Indian music, studying with T. Viswanathan, saying his “radiating warmth and love opened up the richest possibilities of life to me.” In 1990, she traveled to Madras, India to continue her vocal studies of Carnatic music, accompanied by Matthew Allen, Julie Searles, Doug MacKenzie, and Eric Rosenthal, her musical colleagues and friends from Wesleyan.

She met her future husband Reid Cramer at Wesleyan, and together they moved to New York City where she worked in film and television with Children’s Television Workshop and the Ginger Group. She also designed exhibitions for the Municipal Art Society of New York, and first began to work professionally as a graphic designer. Sonya continued her visual and book arts education with courses at Cooper Union, the New School, and the School for Visual Arts.

While in New York, she became the vocalist for a “chamber folk” music group called Last Forever, collaboration with Dick Connette based on new and old songs out of the American tradition. In 1997, Last Forever released a self-titled album for Nonesuch Records, followed by Trainfare Home (2000). Later albums appeared on StorySound Records, including Acres of Diamonds (2015). New York Times music critic Stephen Holden called Last Forever one of the top ten albums of the year in 1997, writing that Sonya’s “plain, twangy voice embodies the spirit of Mr. Connette’s austere, beautifully constructed rural ballads. A haunting evocation of American prairie life in an era before television.”

Sonya sang on two records of material from the songbooks of her grandmother Ruth Crawford Seeger: American Folksongs for Christmas (1989), and Animal Folksongs for Children (1992), both on Rounder Records. Sonya sang with her mother Penny, brother Rufus, uncle Mike Seeger, aunt Peggy Seeger, and her cousins Neill MacColl, Calum MacColl, Kitty MacColl, and Kim Seeger. Animal Folksongs is wonderful family music. Sonya designed the CD, her first of many projects packaging music, and loved singing and sharing a musical project with her mom Penny and extended family.

As a singer and musician, Sonya performed and recorded a range of original, folk, and world music. While in New York, she studied and performed Eastern European and Bulgarian singing with Ethel Raim. She sang with her family throughout her life. On the Grammy-winning Pete Seeger at 89 (2008), Sonya sings the translated Japanese poem that Pete set to music, “When I Was Most Beautiful.” The two performed this song together in March 2007 at the Library of Congress.

Besides singing with Last Forever and her family, Sonya sang with Elizabeth Mitchell and Daniel Littleton, Gary Lucas, Jeb Loy Nichols, and Suzzy and Maggie Roche. Dick Connette writes, “Truly a singer’s singer, Sonya was admired by many of her contemporaries, including Jeff Buckley, Loudon Wainwright III, Geoff Muldaur, Joe Boyd, Meredith Monk, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. As far as it can be captured in her various recordings, the beautiful sweet spirit of her song lives on.”

In 1993, she and husband Reid moved to Austin, Texas where she was a full-time graphic designer until the birth of their daughter Dio in January 1998. During this period, Sonya worked with the firm GoMedia until it was bought by Excite, the search engine. Later, she worked with a series of public interest and nonprofit organizations. She collaborated with Charles Santos and Eugene Sepulveda on the Austin Festival of Dance, art directing what was then the largest dance-related AIDS-care benefit in the country.

When Reid took a job at the White House in 1998, the family moved to Takoma Park, Maryland. Their son Gabel was born in July 2000. Sonya added the name Cramer to her own for professional and personal reasons and, as Sonya Cohen Cramer, became an influential designer and art director. For Smithsonian Folkways Records—a label founded by her godfather, Moe Asch—Sonya designed over sixty CD and record packages of folk and world music, a number of which were nominated for Grammy Awards. Through Folkways, she worked with the Aga Khan Foundation, designing the “Music of Central Asia” series of recordings and companion book under the leadership of Ted Levin. Her design work on a series of Folkways Records with Elizabeth Mitchell was especially gratifying. As art director for The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs In and Out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook (2013), Sonya helped more people connect to her grandmother’s legacy through the beautiful music of Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends.

Throughout her life, she delighted in making things. Along with various arts and crafts, she designed and constructed limited edition art books that often took the form of wedding invitations and family announcements. One of her last projects was a collection of handmade scarves made by felting recycled cashmere sweaters found in thrift stores and sewn together in a style inspired by the quilts of Gee’s Bend. Sold at the 2014 Takoma Craft Show, she called the project, “What I Felt.”

Sonya loved living in Takoma Park and was an active member of the community. When her children attended the Acorn Hill Waldorf Kindergarten and Nursery—not far from the house where her mother was born—Sonya designed the school’s community cookbook, Welcome to Our Table, and included her favorite family recipes. She was a founding member of the Takoma Mother-Daughter Book Group, a successful decade-long endeavor, and a contributor to the costume crew for the Montgomery Blair High School Players.

Reporting in for her 25th Wesleyan Reunion in 2013, Sonya wrote:

We do what we can to live a healthy, balanced family life together, rich in community and social time, spiced by adventures to far-flung places where we can learn about the world past and present. I am a freelance art director/graphic designer who’s loyal to print, happily employed by a network of public interest groups and people similarly inclined. Most of my design work is for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, so I get to listen to world and folk music while I work. I’ve had the pleasure of singing and recording with other musicians, including singing with my extended family. My greatest satisfaction, so far, is bringing up our two stellar children.

A world-class collaborator, Sonya led a vibrant life filled with art, music, and family. Her creative spirit and search for beauty led many people to wonderful places—most especially her husband and children.

She is survived by her partner and husband of twenty-seven years, Reid Cramer, and their two children—Dio Cramer, 17, and Gabel Cramer, 15—and her father, John Cohen of Putnam Valley, New York, and her brother Rufus Cohen of Albuquerque, New Mexico.